What Do Women and Men Want?

Young workers today grew up in rapidly changing times: They watched women march into the workplace and adults develop a wide range of alternatives to traditional marriage. Now making their own passage to adulthood, these "children of the gender revolution" have inherited a far different world from that of their parents or grandparents. They may enjoy an expanded set of options, but they also face rising uncertainty about whether and how to craft a marriage, rear children, and build a career.

Considering the scope of these new uncertainties, it is understandable that social forecasters are pondering starkly different possibilities for the future. Focusing on a comparatively small recent upturn in the proportion of mothers who do not hold paid jobs, some are pointing to a "return to tradition," especially among young women. Others see evidence of a "decline of commitment" in the rising number of young adults who are living outside a married relationship. However, the 120 in-depth interviews I conducted between 1998 and 2003 with young adults from diverse backgrounds make it clear that neither of these scenarios does justice to the lessons gleaned from growing up in changing families or to the strategies being crafted in response to deepening work/family dilemmas.

Keenly aware of the obstacles to integrating work and family life in an egalitarian way, most young adults are formulating a complicated set of ideals and fallback positions. Women and men largely share similar aspirations: Most wish to forge a lifelong partnership that combines committed work with devoted parenting. These ideals are tempered, however, by deep and realistic fears that rigid, time-demanding jobs and a dearth of child-care or family-leave options block the path to such a goal. Confronted with so many obstacles, young women and men today are pursuing fallback strategies as insurance in the all-too-likely event that their egalitarian ideals prove out of reach.

These second-best strategies are not only different but also at odds with each other. If a supportive, egalitarian partnership is not possible, most women prefer individual autonomy over becoming dependent on a husband in a traditional marriage. Most men, however, if they can't have an equal balance between work and parenting, fall back on a neotraditional arrangement that allows them to put their own work prospects first and rely on a partner for most caregiving. The best hope for bridging this new gender divide lies in creating social policies that would allow new generations to create the families they want rather than the families they believe they must settle for.

Growing Up in Changing Families

In contrast to the conventional wisdom that children are best reared in families with a homemaking mother and breadwinning father, the women and men who grew up in such circumstances hold divided assessments. While a little more than half thought this was the best arrangement, a little less than half thought otherwise. When domesticity appeared to undermine their mother's satisfaction, disturb the household's harmony, or threaten its economic security, the adult children surveyed concluded that it would have been better if their mothers had pursued a sustained commitment to work or, in some instances, if their parents had separated.

Many of those who grew up in a single-parent home also express ambivalence. Slightly more than half wished their parents had stayed together, but close to half believed that a breakup, while not ideal, was better than continuing to live in a conflict-ridden home or with a neglectful or abusive parent. The longer-term consequences of a breakup had a crucial influence on the lessons children drew. The children whose parents got back on their feet and created better lives developed surprisingly positive outlooks on the decision to separate.

Those who grew up in dual-earner homes were least ambivalent about their parents' arrangements. More than three-fourths thought their parents had chosen the best option. Having two work-committed parents not only provided increased economic resources for the family but also promoted marriages that seemed more egalitarian and satisfying. Yet when the pressures of parents working long hours or coping with blocked opportunities and family-unfriendly workplaces took their toll, some children came to believe that having overburdened, time-stressed caretakers offset the advantages of living in a two-income household.

In short, the generation that grew up in this era of changing families is more focused on how well parents (and other caretakers) were able to meet the twin challenges of providing economic and emotional support rather than on what forms households took. Children were more likely to receive that support when their parents (or other guardians) could find secure and personally satisfying jobs, high-quality child care, and a supportive partnership that left room for a measure of personal autonomy.

New Ideals, Persisting Barriers

So what do young adults want for themselves? Grappling with their own family experiences has led most young women and men to affirm the intrinsic importance of family life, but also to search for ways to combine lasting commitment with a substantial measure of independence. Whether or not their parents stayed together, the overwhelming majority of young adults I interviewed said they hope to rear their children in the context of a lifelong intimate bond. They have certainly not given up on the value or possibility of commitment. It would be a mistake, however, to equate this ideal with a desire to be in a traditional relationship. While almost everyone wants to create a lasting marriage -- or, in the case of same-sex couples, a "marriage-like" relationship -- most also want to find an egalitarian partnership with considerable room for personal autonomy. Not surprisingly, three-fourths of those who grew up in dual-earner homes want their spouses to share breadwinning and caretaking; but so do more than two-thirds of those from more traditional homes, and close to nine-tenths of those with single parents. Four-fifths of women want egalitarian relationships, but so do two-thirds of the men. Whether reared by traditional, dual-earning, or single parents, the overwhelming majority of women and men want a committed bond where both paid work and family caretaking are shared.

Amy, an Asian American with two working parents, and Michael, an African American raised by a single mother, express essentially the same hopes:

Amy: I want a 50-50 relationship, where we both have the potential of doing everything -- both of us working and dealing with kids. With regard to career, if neither has flexibility, then one of us will have to sacrifice for one period, and the other for another.

Michael: I don't want the '50s type of marriage, where I come home and she's cooking. She doesn't have to cook; I like to cook. I want her to have a career of her own. I want to be able to set my goals, and she can do what she wants, too, because we both have this economic base and the attitude to do it. That's what marriage is about.

Young adults today are affirming the value of commitment while also challenging traditional forms of marriage. Women and men both want to balance family and work in their own lives and balance commitment and autonomy in their relationships. Yet women and men also share a concern that -- in the face of workplaces greedy for time and communities lacking adequate child care -- insurmountable obstacles block the path to achieving these goals.

Chris, a young man of mixed ancestry whose parents shared work and caretaking, thus wonders: "I thought you could just have a relationship -- that love and being happy was all that was needed in life -- but I've learned it's a difficult thing. So that would be my fear: Where am I cutting into my job too much? Where am I cutting into the relationship too much? How do I divide it? And can it be done at all? Can you blend these two parts of your world?"

A New Gender Divide

The rising conflicts between family and work make equal sharing seem elusive and possibly unattainable. Most young adults have concluded that they have little choice but to prepare for options that are likely to fall substantially short of their ideals. In the face of these barriers, women and men are formulating different -- and opposing -- fallback strategies.

In contrast to the media-driven message that more women are opting for domestic pursuits, the vast majority of women I interviewed say they are determined to seek financial and emotional self-reliance, even at the expense of a committed relationship. Most young women -- regardless of class, race, or ethnicity -- are reluctant to surrender their autonomy in a traditional marriage. When the bonds of marriage are so fragile, relying on a husband for economic security seems foolhardy. And if a relationship deteriorates, economic dependence on a man leaves few means of escape.

Danisha, an African American who grew up in an inner-city, working-class neighborhood, and Jennifer, who was raised in a middle-class, predominantly white suburb, agree:

Danisha: Let's say that my marriage doesn't work. Just in case, I want to establish myself, because I don't ever want to end up, like, "What am I going to do?" I want to be able to do what I have to do and still be OK.

Jennifer: I will have to have a job and some kind of stability before considering marriage. Too many of my mother's friends went for that -- "Let him provide everything" -- and they're stuck in a very unhappy relationship, but can't leave because they can't provide for themselves or the children they now have. So it's either welfare or putting up with somebody else's crap.

Hoping to avoid being trapped in an unhappy marriage or abandoned by an unreliable partner, almost three-fourths of women surveyed said they plan to build a non-negotiable base of self-reliance and an independent identity in the world of paid work. But they do not view this strategy as incompatible with the search for a life partner. Instead, it reflects their determination to set a high standard for a worthy relationship. Economic self-reliance and personal independence make it possible to resist "settling" for anything less than a satisfying, mutually supportive bond.

Maria, who grew up in a two-parent home in a predominantly white, working-class suburb and Rachel, whose Latino parents separated when she was young, share this view:

Maria: I want to have this person to share [my] life with -- [someone] that you're there for as much as they're there for you. But I can't settle.

Rachel: I'm not afraid of being alone, but I am afraid of being with somebody who's a jerk. I want to get married and have children, but it has to be under the right circumstances, with the right person.

Maria and Rachel also agree that if a worthy relationship ultimately proves out of reach, then remaining single need not mean social disconnection. Kin and friends provide a support network that enlarges and, if needed, even substitutes for an intimate relationship:

Maria: If I don't find [a relationship], then I cannot live in sorrow. It's not the only thing that's ultimately important. If I didn't have my family, if I didn't have a career, if I didn't have friends, I would be equally unhappy. [A relationship] is just one slice of the pie.

Rachel: I can spend the rest of my life on my own, and as long as I have my sisters and my friends, I'm OK.

By blending support from friends and kin with financial self-sufficiency, most young women are pursuing a strategy of autonomy rather than placing their own fate or their children's in the hands of a traditional marriage. Whether or not this strategy ultimately leads to marriage, it appears to offer the safest and most responsible way to prepare for the uncertainties of relationships and the barriers to men's equal sharing.

Young men, in contrast, face a different dilemma: Torn between women's pressures for an egalitarian partnership and their own desire to succeed -- or at least survive -- in time-demanding workplaces, they are more inclined to fall back on a modified traditionalism that recognizes a mother's right (and need) to work but puts a man's claim to a career first.

Despite growing up in a two-income home, Andrew distinguishes between a woman's "choice" to work and a man's "responsibility" to support his family: "I would like to have it be equal -- just from what I was exposed to and what attracts me -- but I don't have a set definition for what that would be like. I would be fine if both of us were working, but if she thought, ‘At this point in my life, I don't want to work,' then it would be fine."

This model makes room for two earners, but it positions men as the breadwinning specialists. When push comes to shove, and the demands of work collide with the needs of children, this framework allows fathers to resist equal caretaking, even in a two-earner context. Although Josh's mother became too mentally ill to care for her children or herself, Josh plans to leave the lion's share of caretaking to his wife:

All things being equal, it [caretaking] should be shared. It may sound sexist, but if somebody's going to be the breadwinner, it's going to be me. First of all, I make a better salary, and I feel the need to work, and I just think the child really needs the mother more than the father at a young age.

Men are thus more likely to favor a fallback arrangement that retains the gender boundary between breadwinning and caretaking, even when mothers hold paid jobs. From young men's perspective, this modified but still gendered household offers women the chance to earn income and establish an identity at the workplace without imposing the costs of equal parenting on men. Granting a mother's "right" to work supports women's claims for independence, but does not undermine men's claim that their work prospects should come first. Acknowledging men's responsibilities at home provides for more involved fatherhood, but does not envision domestic equality. And making room for two earners provides a buffer against the difficulties of living on one income, but does not challenge men's position as the primary earner. Modified traditionalism thus appears to be a good compromise when the career costs of equality remain so high. Ultimately, however, men's desire to protect work prerogatives collides with women's growing demand for equality and independence.

Getting Past the Work/Family Impasse?

If the realities of time-demanding workplaces and missing supports for caregiving make it difficult for young adults to achieve the sharing, flexible, and more egalitarian relationships most want, then how can we get past this impasse? Clearly, most young women are not likely to answer this question by returning to patterns that fail to speak to either their highest ideals or their greatest fears. To the contrary, they are forming fallback strategies that stress personal autonomy, including the possibility of single parenthood. Men's most common responses to economic pressures and time-demanding jobs stress a different strategy -- one that allows for two incomes but preserves men's claim on the most rewarding careers. Women and men are leaning in different directions, and their conflicting responses are fueling a new gender divide. But this schism stems from the intensification of long-simmering work/family dilemmas, not from a decline of laudable values.

We need to worry less about the family values of a new generation and more about the institutional barriers that make them so difficult to achieve. Most young adults do not wish to turn back the clock, but they do hope to combine the more traditional value of making a lifelong commitment with the more modern value of having a flexible, egalitarian relationship. Rather than trying to change individual values, we need to provide the social supports that will allow young people to overcome work/family conflicts and realize their most cherished aspirations.

Since a mother's earnings and a father's involvement are both integral to the economic and emotional welfare of children (and also desired by most women and men), we can achieve the best family values only by creating flexible workplaces, ensuring equal economic opportunity for women, outlawing discrimination against all parents, and building child-friendly communities with plentiful, affordable, and high-quality child care. These long overdue policies will help new generations create the more egalitarian partnerships they desire. Failure to build institutional supports for new social realities will not produce a return to traditional marriage. Instead, following the law of unintended consequences, it will undermine marriage itself.

Kathleen Gerson is professor of sociology at New York University and president-elect of the Eastern Sociological Society. Author of Hard Choices, No Man's Land, and The Time Divide (with Jerry A. Jacobs), she is completing a new book, The Children of the Gender Revolution.